Kolkata Children

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The bustling streets of Kolkata thrive with the abundance of noise, ambience and culture. From markets to roads; there is always a busy and lively atmosphere that never stops moving. However, if you take a step back to gaze upon the frequented streets you will find a clear and common anomaly; the presence of families struggling to survive.

As you move away from the explicit divide between wealthy and poor, waving away the smog of class systems and status, what is clear is the image of a child who is denied basic needs. There are a further 399,999 children just like that child existing on the streets, half of which are born malnourished and are thought of as lucky if they have shelter or food. Some live with their families, often comprising of parents and grandparents, all living under one tent.

Often families choose to arrive at a city like Kolkata expecting to find work, but their expectations are met with the crushing reality that there is not only no work but nowhere to live, which is evident when you consider the fact that the number of ‘street dwellers’ has now reached a record high.

Children will abandon home due to being physically abused by parents, choosing to live the seemingly attractive life of having pocket money, independence and a lack of discipline, constantly attracting more children to life on the streets. But then how do they bathe or defecate you may ask? They do both in local ponds and lakes and often live in refuge areas nearby.

Common jobs that they will find themselves in include rag-picking; trying to find something they can salvage for recycling like plastic, paper and metal. Often their grubby faces will linger disillusioned and desperate amongst busy and dangerous traffic in order to beg for scraps- small hands open and ready for anything a stranger will detach from their unconcerning fingers.

Luckier children will have money to purchase products from wholesalers, like balloons, incense or flowers, in small quantities and resell them in a form of ‘petty vending’ to the public for a profit. After an 8-10 hour day of selling, they will use any money they make for food, often going hungry if they do not sell anything.

The arguably entrepreneurial skills utilised by these children cause an endless cycle of minimal profits for minimal gain, ensuring that they/their family is fed for that day, making it near possible to reinvest in adequate stock to provide any great improvement in profits.

Often, a large portion of the money earnt is stolen by older children or police, making it impossible to extricate money and this produces financial insecurity.  Growing up on these desperate streets, living near sewage systems and busy roads, ensures a short-lived and desolate life of no education and even less concern from the government:

“We order kids to go away from here. There are hotels on both sides, good people come here.”

Sukumar Saha
Kolkata Police

The treatment of these children by civil servants evidently leads to more long-term psychological trauma; causing them to lose trust in the government and the system, due to being victimised as thieves. After living on their own from ages as young as 4, they are eventually taught that society is against them, with few receiving help.

The police regularly perform searches, collecting various children from the Kolkata streets and either beating them or detaining them illegally, as they are assumed to commit the petty crimes or be connected to culprits who did.

“We hardly wield the baton unnecessarily. You will find the force which is performing duty on the street, most of them, they don’t wield the baton.”

Debasish Roy
SPL ADDL Commissioner of Police

The distinct evidence provided by the Kolkata Police clearly indicates their view on the children, who they believe to clutter the streets and are dutifully bound to keep them out of sight of important ministers, which only perpetuates the problem. Abuse by the police is usually reported by the street children, although with no social status and no adults to protect them, they are easy targets for opportunists.

There are many factors that contribute to the police abuse of street children, including the police’s perceptions, widespread corruption, a culture of police violence, the inadequate implementation of legal safeguards and the impunity that the police relish. Even after facing such treatment, some continue to hold on to aspirations for the future;

“When I grow up, I want to be a pilot; I will take my aeroplane and will roam around in the sky. I want to take the good people and fly the aeroplane around the whole world, the whole sky.”

Sahil (Aged 6)
Street child

The social ramifications faced by these children introduces psychological instabilities when attempting to cope with the harsh realities of their lives. These coping strategies employed include a tough exterior and strong independence to hide vulnerability, as well as living in ‘survival-mode’ to ensure they are constantly aware of their surroundings and are able to fight for their safety.

Living under these circumstances eventually effects the children, who begin to display behaviour that children within stable families typically don’t do; such as frequent aggression and valuing people based on personal gain. Street children will also use coping mechanisms like substance abuse, with the younger children sniffing glue and the older children using cocaine, betel leaves, hashish, heroin and marijuana, to stop their minds from being transfixed on hunger or their poor living conditions.

As the younger children grow older, they find themselves influenced or coursed by what their parents or the older children are doing, often illegal activities like drug-peddling or theft.

In effect then, the street children have no education, poor health and a limited chance of freedom from their circumstances. There have been policies and plans where these children have been considered and incorporated although all plans so far have proved unsuccessful. If India is to improve the growing divide between the social scale of the very wealthy and the very poor, they must act swiftly to stop the exploitation and corruption that is all too often swept out of view.

However with the growing rise in population, HIV and subsequently both of these contributing to a large portion of the individuals living on the streets, it is only a matter of time before India faces a grand scale operation to not only fix the social ambiguities in Kolkata but also in India’s other cities if they are to show the western world that they too can become a developed country – eradicating poverty for all the wrong reasons.

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